History: New Beef Cattle Have Bison Blood

Reprinted from the February 1951 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

Experimental farms develop Cattalo

Less that a century ago vast herds of American bison or buffalo roamed the mid-western plains of Canada and the United States. For many years these hardy animals were the chief source of meat for the Indians and the advance guard of early white settlers pushing westward in their covered wagons. Today as the result of the wholesale slaughter during the last century, the once prolific buffalo exists only in a few scattered herds in game preserves. But if the extensive experiments of the Canada Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Farms Service prove successful in crossing domestic cattle and the buffalo, then the desirable characters of the American bison will not be lost, and Canadian consumers may at least have a dash of buffalo blood in their beefsteaks.

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For more than 30 years the Experimental Farms Service has been trying to develop useful hybrid strains embodying the desirable characteristics of the American bison with the best features of certain domestic beef cattle breeds. The hybrids, whatever the percentage of domestic or buffalo blood are termed “Cattalos.” One great and continuing problem in creating a Cattalo breed of beef cattle is a lack of fertility in the males, says K. Mackenzie of the Range Experiment Station at Manyberries, Alberta. He has found that this lack of fertility persists in succeeding generations of hybrids. Experiments to date show that even after buffalo blood is reduced in a low percentage only a few male Cattalos are fertile.

Most satisfactory cross

Early in the tests it was found that the most satisfactory cross resulted from the mating of a domestic bull to a buffalo cow. In 1936 and the following years, domestic sires of Aberdeen-Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford breeds were used on 70 buffalo cows. The resulting hybrid heifers were then mated to domestic sires to give 3/4 domestic, 7/8 domestic and so on. Large numbers of bulls have been tested for fertility and only about 23 per cent have been found to be fertile.

The transfer of the Cattalo from the Buffalo National Park at Wainwright to the Range Experiment Station at Manyberries, Alberta, started in the fall of 1949 when 72 head of calves were shipped and it was completed this fall with the movement of the main herd of cows and calves to Manyberries. This change was made because the Department of National Defence required the land occupied by the Cattalo at Wainwright and also because Manyberries offered greater facilities for continuing the work of improving the new hybrids and comparing them with range Herefords.

Work at Manyberries

The object of the experiments at Manyberries is the same as originally conceived, which is to create a breed of cattle that will combine the buffalo’s characteristics of thriftiness and hardiness with the meat-producing qualities of domestic breeds.

First of all a study will be made of the foraging ability of the Cattalo in winter and summer and also their resistance to cold, diseases and flies.

Secondly their rate of growth, age and size of maturity will be determined. The feeding ability and meat producing quality will be compared with the Herefords and feeding tests with bull and heifer calves are planned.

Causes of infertility

Another important study will centre on the reproductive ability of the Cattalo and an effort will be made to determine the cause of infertility in the male and females and tests will be made to overcome this defect which has handicapped workers in the past.

The herd will also be increased to obtain new combinations of characteristics from which to select a desirable strain. It is hoped to select for a polled type of animal with a uniform color pattern combined with hardiness and beef producing ability.

It will be some years before the Range Experiment Station at Manyberries can produce a Cattalo with the desired characteristics, and none are available for distribution at the present time. The herd at present is not uniform in appearance. This lack of uniformity is to be expected since the animals comprising it represent great variation in the percentages of blood of different breeds of domestic cattle and buffalo.

This lack of uniformity in the herd is considered an advantage as it is not yet known what type of Cattalo is most desirable from the standpoint of percentage of buffalo blood, or such characteristics as winter hardiness, beef quality, ability to rustle or breed color. From a study of the results of the tests to be conducted, it’s hoped that the most desirable types will emerge and attempts will be made to breed a uniform herd of Cattalo.

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